Christine Wueste suffered black eyes and chipped teeth. Months after an incident with her then best friend, she was suffering from severe depression and anxiety. The person she said assaulted her in a drunken rage never paid for his alleged crime. The case was tossed out of court on a technicality.
A Berkeley County Sheriff’s Deputy didn’t know all the rules of the court, though he was called to prosecute the case. He was up against an experienced defense attorney.
Through our I-Team investigation, we found South Carolina is one of only three states where officers prosecute some of their own cases, even violent ones like Wueste’s incident.
In this year’s budget, which started in July, the state has a plan to prosecute cases faster and better.
The budget includes $10.8 million to hire about 144 additional prosecutors, which would cut caseloads from an average of 376 cases per lawyer to 280. Commission on Prosecution Coordination Chairman Duffie Stone said juggling that many cases is hard. It can delay trials and result in lost evidence and clouded memories for witnesses. Stone says imagine going into a doctor’s waiting room and seeing 376 patients. Caseloads increase dramatically in poorer, rural districts. The Commission on Prosecution Coordination says one prosecutor In Marion County is responsible for 933 cases.
With fewer cases to manage, cases should be resolved faster. That means defendants will spend less time in jail, which will save your tax money.
The increase in positions also means victims will have closure faster.
The budget increase doesn’t mean all cases will be prosecuted by lawyers. In some drug cases and assault cases or crimes heard in lower courts, police officers will still play lawyers in court.
David Ross, Executive Director of the Commission on Prosecution Coordination, told the I-Team some counties already started the hiring process. The money will put a prosecutor in Saluda, McCormick and Allendale counties, which currently have none. It’s yet to be seen how many new lawyers each county will get. Ross says those details would be firmed up within the next week.
Some of the money will be used specifically for prosecuting domestic violence cases, where officers are often acting as lawyers in court.
As part of this year’s budget, the state allocated additional money to indigent defense, which means more public defenders will be hired as well.